Written by Norman Cramp, Director of Darwin Military Museum
Even seventy-five years after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and Darwin, the name Admiral Yamamoto resonates around the world when, and where, ever it is mentioned.
Admiral Yamamoto was a leading, albeit reluctant figure, and key player, in Japan’s expansionism in the 1930s that ultimately led to the Pacific war.
Although he often disagreed with the Japanese military government’s plans, Yamamoto was first and last a Navy career man and a true Japanese warrior.
What follows is a precis of his life and death.
The son of a Samurai
Sadayoshi was a former low-class samurai. Isoroku’s early life was one of poverty and hardship, however, his father, a qualified teacher, and his mother ensured he received a decent education, part of which was delivered by western Christian missionary teachers. Yamamoto was a keen and serious student and as historian Bob Alford wrote, ‘no doubt keen to escape the hardships of life in Nagaoka’.
His opportunity to break the chains of poverty came in 1901 when he won an appointment to the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima Island near Hiroshima. He studied at the Academy for three years, graduating in 1904 seventh in a class of 200.
Following his graduation, he was posted to the cruiser Nisshin, on which he served during the defeat of the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima Strait on 26th May 1905. He was wounded during the action, resulting in him losing two fingers on his right hand and spending several months recuperating. Following his return to duty he served on several ships of the Fleet, one of which took him on a training cruise to the US.
Becoming Isoroku Yamamoto
Following his parents’ deaths (in 1912), he accepted an offer from the influential, and wealthy, Yamamoto family in 1916 to join them and become their male heir. Part of the arrangement was that Isoroku took the Yamamoto name. This he did and Isoroku Takano ceased to exist. In 1918 he married Reiko Mishashi (in an arranged marriage) and together the pair had two sons and two daughters.
Yamamoto's rise through the ranks
In 1926 he was appointed attaché to the USA, a post in which he served for two years and during which time his interest in naval aviation increased. In 1928 he was assigned to command the IJN aircraft carrier Akagiin for a period before being sent to London as a member of the Japanese delegation to the London Naval Conference. Returning to Japan post-conference, he was appointed as head of Aeronautics Department’s Technical Division and, two years later, was promoted to Commander Carrier Division One with the carrier Akagi as his flagship.
He was promoted to Vice-Admiral on 15th November 1934. He was made chief of the Aeronautics Department in December 1935 placing him in a position overseeing all naval aviation development. While he accepted that, to many, battleships and large guns meant naval power he pushed for greater air power for Japan – a far-reaching foresight that was to benefit the Japanese in the early stages of the Pacific war.
Although opposed to the army’s desire for war, the dogs were unleashed in 1937 when Japan attacked China. Following that step, the army pushed for a tripartite agreement with Germany and Italy, which significantly increased the chances of war with Britain and America.
Yamamoto opposes war
The tripartite agreement was reached and, although Yamamoto and others strenuously opposed the army’s plans and actions, throughout 1940 and 1941 the Japanese government moved toward war. A war the IJN dreaded. In opposition to the plans, Yamamoto said, ‘the United States will never stop fighting…the war will continue for several years’. He also stated, ‘We must not start a war with so little chance of success’, but he was overruled and the planning progressed.
Mindful that any war with America and her allies in the Pacific would be fought (largely) at sea, Yamamoto increased the size and organisation the carrier fleet into the First Air Fleet. He also implemented a complete revision of Japan’s naval strategy whereby Japan would try to pressure the US into early peace negotiations by way of a decisive, pre-emptive, strike that would (supposedly) cripple the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. With this revision and plan endorsed, training for the attack on Pearl Harbor and other Asia-Pacific targets commenced.
The Japanese hit Pearl Harbour
On 7th December 1941 (US time) the Japanese unleashed an unprovoked and unheralded attack on Pearl Harbour. This attack was accompanied by attacks by air, sea and land on the Philippines, Indo-China, Hong Kong, southern Thailand and Malaya. The attacks were devastating but not war-winning, as the US carrier fleet was absent and the Americans executed repairs to many of the damaged ships within months.
The Japanese moved quickly with Ambon falling on 3rd February, Singapore falling on the 15th February 1942, Darwin bombed on the 19th and Timor invaded on 21st. The IJN personnel who carried out the first attack on Darwin were the same personnel from the same carrier group who had attacked Pearl Harbour.
The Americans hit back via the US Doolittle-led raid on Japan in April, the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 (with Australian naval forces in support), and the battle for Midway Island in May. Japan had suffered her first sea/air defeats of the war in the Coral Sea – and in a sense, it was the beginning of the end.
The Japanese lose ground
A message was sent on 13th April, via Japanese secret code, to base units, garrisons and air flotillas chosen advising that he would be visiting. The message, that provided the itinerary of the flight plans etc, was intercepted by US forces and decoded. The Americans knew exactly where Yamamoto would be, at what time, with what fighter escort and planned his demise accordingly. As Bob Alford wrote, ‘The message proved to be the announcement of Yamamoto’s imminent death’.
Yamamoto's final flight
The ‘Bettys’ took off at 0600 hours and at 0710 hours, US Army Air Force (USAAF) Major John Mitchell and his flight of P-38 Lightning fighters took off from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s aircraft. Within minutes of the US airmen spotting Yamamoto’s aircraft, both the Bettys had been shot down. The Americans lost Lieutenant Raymond K. Hine in the attack.
There were no survivors from either aircraft.
Two days later search parties found the wreckage of Yamamoto’s aircraft and the bodies that were strewn around it. Yamamoto had been thrown clear of the craft and was sitting upright - still strapped into his seat. The cause of death was two .50 calibre (machine gun) bullet wounds to his body, one of which entered the lower left jaw, emerging through the right jaw, and the other entering the left shoulder blade. There was no exit wound for this bullet.
The news of Yamamoto’s death was kept a secret by the Japanese government until 21st May when his ashes returned to Japan aboard the battleship Musashi. Yamamoto was afforded a State funeral on 5th June 1943, following which his ashes were divided into two, one half being interred at the (public) Tama Cemetery in Tokyo while the other half were interred at the Chuko-ji Zen temple in his hometown Nagaoka.
Japan had lost Yamamoto and were about to lose the war - as he had so correctly predicted.